After a troubled pre-season test run, the German manufacturer got over themselves, dug deep, got to the bottom of the problems they faced with the W13 and later in the season won the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Fast forward to now and an almost identical six-tenths gap – from a 0.680s deficit on pole position in 2022 to a 0.632s difference this year – has prompted an entirely different reaction.
Rather than showing a good basis for Mercedes to move forward in F1’s annual development war, it instead raised the white flag.
Within minutes of the end of qualifying, and even before George Russell and Lewis Hamilton had sat down with the mechanics, team boss Toto Wolff declared that title hopes were over and a new car concept was needed.
“I don’t think this package will be competitive after all,” he said. “We gave it our best over the winter, and now we just need to all regroup and sit down with the engineers, who are not completely dogmatic about anything.
“There are no sacred cows and we have to decide which direction of development we want to go in order to be competitive to win races.”
F1 teams are usually anxious to wait a few races before properly judging how their cars stack up against the opposition – especially as different tracks can juggle the field quite a bit as strengths and weaknesses are revealed.
So for Wolff to declare that it’s essentially game over with the W14 after just one qualifying session might seem rather odd. However, there are some serious reasons behind his stance.
Mick Schumacher, Reserve Driver, Mercedes-AMG, with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG
Photo: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
Chief among them is that Mercedes knows it’s a completely different situation to last year, when there was a mismatch between the W13’s capabilities and what it saw on the track.
He knew that somewhere deep within the quirks of the 2022 car was a formidable force of downforce that he simply had to be able to extract without causing seals.
This time the team is a different place. The W14 performs exactly as the team expected and there’s no way there’s much lap time it knows can be unlocked further down the line.
The team has admitted that it is working on a fairly large update, possibly ready for around the time of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in mid-May, but that may only bring a few tenths.
That’s not the kind of performance Mercedes need to change to be able to take on the might of Red Bull, Ferrari and now Aston Martin, who are also likely to bring further upgrades to their cars in the coming weeks.
As Wolff admitted on Saturday night, Mercedes had not delivered a car that performed worse than expected. It’s just not good enough compared to the other cars.
“We hit our targets,” he said. “And that’s why we gave our best.
“There comes a time when the timer goes out and that showed us that it’s just not good enough. We don’t have enough downforce. And we have to wait to find solutions to fix it.”
Aston Martin data point
Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Mercedes’ struggles have been further exposed by the fact that Aston Martin’s customer team overtook them in the series.
But while the progress Aston Martin has made in delivering what is arguably the third fastest car is a blow, its rival’s pace will at least give Brackley plenty of answers as to where its profits should come from.
With the Aston Martin sharing the same powerplant, gearbox and rear suspension as the Mercedes, there are some clear answers as to where the W14 package is lacking.
As Wolff said: “They gained two seconds in half a time and their car is half ours from engine, gearbox and rear suspension. They use the same wind tunnel, so there are a lot of parallels. We just have to acknowledge that they have done a great job.
“Whether it was mechanical or suspension [weakness] then Aston Martin should have it too.
“The thing is, we lose it at high speed. It’s turns 5/6/7. This is pretty much the only place where we lose large chunks of time. We’re OK in the other corners, we’re OK in the straight.”
The big decision
George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Whatever the outcome of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Wolff insists the team must change ways with their car.
He spoke in Bahrain of the need to follow “uncharted” paths in his search for the kind of performance step he needs to get back to the front.
This route seems almost certain to upend the current Mercedes concept – which goes beyond just the zero-pod concept and extends to the floor and diffuser design.
And, with most of the grid having changed course to follow Red Bull’s downwash solution which looks dominant again, there seems little doubt that Mercedes will have to swallow their pride and look at it too.
What will create the biggest dilemma for Mercedes is whether to completely abandon all efforts on the current car to launch its new concept, or whether to try to work on both concepts in parallel.
Such a decision is particularly difficult in the era of the cost cap, as the team is unlikely to be able to afford the kind of response that a completely overhauled B spec could unleash this season. It means he’ll have to stick with W14 for a while.
Any new car concept is most likely something that will come for 2024, so the question is how soon will Mercedes switch off the current car?
One scenario, which sources say the team is open to, could be to abandon work on the Imola upgrade and instead start immediately on the new concept. It would mean some short-term pain, but long-term gain.
Wolff suggests it may be too early to commit to such a path just yet, but he knows time is running out.
“Certainly everyday counts, and you miss those days,” he said. “It will be difficult to catch up. Therefore, we need to take the right precise decisions now to set sail in the right direction.”